Too lovable to hate? Shaq's persona masks lagging career

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Shaquille O'Neal is funny. This is the simplest observation about the man, but it is also the first thing to remember about him and the last thing you should forget. It is, I think, at the heart of why Shaq has crafted a public persona unlike any in this era of American professional sports.

Shaq is in Boston now, hoping to be the final piece that brings the Celtics a championship. Last year, he was supposed to be the Cavs' final piece. Before that, Phoenix's final piece. It hasn't worked yet. Shaq is not the first-generation athletic-freak Shaq, or even the second-generation still-dominant Shaq, and he might not even be the third-generation flashes-now-and-again Shaq.

But he is still Shaq, and so I suspect most people are pulling for him. He is the kind of guy you pull for, sometimes despite your better instincts, because ... well, as he says on his Twitter page: "VERY QUOTATIOUS, I PERFORM RANDOM ACTS OF SHAQNESS."

There are so many conventional reasons that the public should ridicule Shaq. For years, he saw the regular season as a time to get in shape. The most successful coach ever, Phil Jackson, said he never really wanted to work. Shaq feuded with his most talented teammate (Kobe Bryant) and rarely gives credit to any other center. He mocked David Robinson and Alonzo Mourning and other All-Stars. He trashed his first four teams after he left.

And yet ... this is weird, but it somehow has all made Shaq more likable, because it's all a game to him. Wilt Chamberlain famously said that nobody roots for Goliath; maybe Shaq's greatest feat is that, despite being the most talented big man in NBA history, he was never really Goliath.

"I don't let earthlings motivate me," he once said, and again: Shaquille O'Neal is funny. And, for that reason, like Charles Barkley, he gets a pass for almost anything he says because people like him.

Really, I think that's it. I don't mean to simplify too much, but this is a purposefully simple man. He just wants to have fun. His feud with Kobe boiled down to simple philosophical differences: Kobe took everything too seriously, and Shaq did not take things seriously enough. Kobe showed up at training camp in late September determined to show everybody he was the best player of all time. Shaq showed up fat, out of shape and, one year, needing surgery he had put off so he could enjoy his summer.

The American sports fan ethos should have tilted public opinion toward Kobe. But most people sided with Shaq. He had the benefit of timing: Shaq was a full-blown superstar when the Lakers started winning championships, while Kobe was still rising. But also, Shaq seemed like more fun to hang around. Kobe is a born assassin. Shaq is an aspiring cartoon character, complete with the Superman "S" tattoo and nicknames like "The Big Shamrock." Early in his career, he said he had different smiles depending on how much he was getting paid to endorse a product.

So the world wonders why anybody would sign loafer Manny Ramirez, why the Vikings would want selfish, grumpy Randy Moss. Meanwhile Shaq -- who shares some of their least attractive qualities -- goes to the Celtics, and people want it to work. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all signed with the Heat this summer to make it easier to win a championship. Shaq once left a contending team in Orlando for a rebuilding one in L.A. because he wanted a lifestyle change. He wanted to live among the stars. This never meant too much to him, and if that cost him a championship or two (and a half-dozen MVP awards) ... well, that's the price you pay for being loved by earthlings.